onsdag den 18. november 2015


Elvira Santamaria
Torres, Shadow Self-
, 2015. Photo
© Peter Lind.
 Last weekend, I manned the “samtalekøkken” (“conversation kitchen”) during the Kulstof 15 festival in Aalborg, Denmark. My job was to engage visitors in conversation about the performances they had just seen. This gave me a lot of time to talk about them and to reflect on them. Here are some of my thoughts.

On day one, I watched Elvira Santamaria Torres (Mexico) perform her Shadow Self-Portrait. Torres started by bending over, shaking her hair out and sticking her hand out through it in gestures indicating basic emotions, from supplication to anger. Then she started striking matches, faster and faster, counting each one of them like the years of a life. Finally, she blackened a sheet of glass that she held up in front of her face with soot and traced a stylized face in it with her finger. Was this the shadow self-portrait from the title? Or were the other scenes shadow self-portaits as well?

Myriam Laplante, The Pheno-
menology of Doubt
, 2015
Photo © Peter Lind.  
If Torres’s performance demanded a willingness on the part of the audience to wait for the imagery to unfold, Myriam Laplante (Canada/Italy) captured the viewer’s attention straight away. Her performance The Phenomenology of Doubt started with her writing words on a black wall with a horribly squeaky piece of chalk attached to a piece of string on a nail. “Doubt”, she wrote along the perimeter of an imaginary circle, and “universe”, and “art”. She filled the space in between with other words to create a circular sentence: “doubt in the post-material universe of contemporary performance art through the study of the phenomenology of…” and so on and so on. Then she performed two conjuring tricks: first she put a vase of flowers on her head and danced, finally leaving the vase hanging in the air, and then she lay down on thin air and floated out of the room. Except that she didn’t: you could see the figure in black that held the vase, just as you could see the black table on wheels that she lay on during her exit. It was all a trick. Doubt.

Both performances make demands to the viewer. The first one expects him/her to stay and piece the scenes together, the second one expects him/her to go over the action once again in his/her head in order to work out how the notions of “doubt”, “the universe” and “art” fit in. Intense viewing combined with reflection along the way vs. relaxed viewing followed by reflection. Retroactive reflection in both cases: reconstructing the performance again and again in your head as new layers are added to it, reconstructing it afterwards on the basis of the words supplied by it after the performance has lifted its spell. If performance really is characterized by the fact that it only happens once, like performance theorists used to claim, it is the spectator’s time, not the run-time of the actual performance. If it only happens once, it happens in a strange, broken kind of time that encompasses memory and reflection as much as it does actual experience.

Did the audience comment on this? Not really. Some merely answered "I don't know" when I asked them what they thought of the performances. Some of the less taciturn ones confessed to being frustrated about the lack of narrative in the performances. But among the most talkative ones I did notice a tendency to want to confirm their readings with the artist or, if s/he didn't happen to be around, with me. It may for a long time have been an item of faith among performance theorists that a performance happens in its own time, but it was equally common to point out that performance happens in the viewer's space. I am tempted to conclude that that space, just like performance time, is strange and broken. That these viewers wanted to ask the artist means that they were aware of the latter's presence as a human being, but it also means that they saw him/her as the key to the work in the Modernist sense. A direct line between the artist and the viewer, yes, but one with a big kink in the middle.

To be continued.

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